07 September 2014 ~ 0 Comments

Why you shouldn’t start an orphanage (from a woman who did)

Three and a half years ago I wrote a piece on “Hero-worshipping in the social sector”, and I focused on the story of a twenty year old from Australia who had started an orphanage, inspiring others to want to do the same. At the time, the article created a lot of dialogue, and was heated on both sides: half of the readers, many of them living in Cambodia, speaking out about their shared concerns about the growing DIY aid movement and the failings we had seen or been a part of, and the other half defending the young woman for what were very clearly good intentions.

The young woman’s name is Tara Winkler, and over the last three and half years, she has continued to grow her work in Cambodia. About a year ago we met in person for the first time, being connected by a mutual friend who said she thought we “shared some views on non-profits.” It turns out, we do.

Over the years, Tara has moved away from the orphanage model, and she is now very outspoken and honest about her belief that orphanages are not the best place for children, and should be a last resort for their care. We both share similar stories in having looked back on our actions and decisions when we first arrived in Cambodia and realized that, though we had the best of intentions, we no longer believe in those tactics, and we both share a desire to help others who are considering similar paths to learn from our actions.

Tara and I met for breakfast in Battambang, where she works, when I was coming through with a group of teachers who were in Cambodia to learn about development work. It was really nice to be able to connect over shared views, and since then we have exchanged emails and contacts about the overlap of our work, and our desire to share messages about the dangers of heroworshiping in the social sector. In fact, Tara is helping us write a chapter of our book on Learning Service along these same lines.

Tara offered to write a guest post about her thoughts on orphanages and the lessons learned from her work in Cambodia, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to share it with you here.  Thanks, Tara! Your honesty, commitment to honoring the good intentions that have led you through this journey, and openness to share your learning journey with others is impressive. Having just read up further about your journey over the last few years through many hard times, I further admire your efforts to have a positive impact on many lives in Cambodia and that you have been willing to share your journey with us here. I tip my hat to you.

Over to Tara…

Guest post by Tara Winkler

Many things that I once believed about charity and aid turned out to be wrong.

I believed that supporting orphanages was a good thing to do. I believed that the children in these orphanages had no parents. I believed volunteering in orphanages was an honorable pursuit, even without any specific skills or training. I hadn’t before considered the effects of forming bonds with orphaned children and then leaving them shortly after. And I believed that the people who looked after the orphans must all be kind, caring, good-hearted people.

On the basis of these mistaken beliefs, I took a trip to Cambodia in 2005 and pledged my support to the poorest orphanage I found.

This part of my story is not unique. Orphanages in developing countries are largely funded by well-meaning foreigners who believe they are helping.

After my first trip to Cambodia, I went home, raised funds and returned the following year to volunteer. I had become a voluntourist.

As UNICEF reported in 2011, the effects of voluntourism are not benign.

Voluntourism is a term used for tourists and travellers who include volunteering for a charitable cause as part of their travel itinerary. It is one of the fastest growing areas of the travel industry, and it is causing serious problems for developing countries like Cambodia – problems that most people are not aware of…

Orphanage tourism is the best (or worst!) example of the kinds of problems that voluntourism can create.

It may surprise you to learn that the number or orphanages in Cambodia has almost doubled in recent years, despite the fact that there are far less orphans.

It also might surprise you to hear that the majority of the children in these orphanages are not orphans. They are children from poor families. Struggling parents entrust their children into the care of orphanages in the hope they will find a path out of poverty to a better life.

Cambodia is not alone here. In other developing countries the statistics are the same. A Save the Children Alliance report cited that over 80 percent of children living in orphanages have parents (Csaky, 2009).

Research has found that, at best, even children growing up in ‘good’ orphanages will be at high risk of developing clinical personality disorders, growth and speech delays, and an impaired ability to re-enter society later in life.

I believe the dramatic rise in the number of orphanages and the number of children being institutionalised unnecessarily is caused predominantly by voluntourism.

It’s shocking to realise that the laws of supply and demand apply to the business of orphanages, where children are the commodities and we, well-meaning foreigners, are the customers.

How do I know all this? Well, it’s a long story, which has been told in two ABC Australian Story documentaries. Suffice to say, after seven years living in Cambodia I’ve seen it all. I’ve been a donor, and then a voluntourist. I’ve rescued children from an abusive orphanage. I’ve started my own orphanage, only to realise that no matter how good an orphanage is, the best place for a child to grow up is in a family.

I still live in Cambodia and am the director of the Cambodian Children’s Trust, an NGO working to keep children out of orphanages, with their families and then enable them to break free from the cycle of poverty. Today all of the children in CCT’s programs are living in a family. Our aim is to empower the next generation of Cambodians so they can grow up and solve Cambodia’s problems themselves. With this aim in mind, we are working towards a time when CCT will be entirely Cambodian run because empowering Cambodia can’t really be achieved with a ‘colonial-run’ organisation.

Seven years of living in Cambodia has made me witness to the increasingly alarming problem of misguided help coming from the West.

Ending global poverty is something we can achieve in our lifetime, but we won’t get there with lazy thinking. I firmly believe we need to rethink how we do charity.

Think before visiting an orphanage – children are not tourist attractions. Visits to orphanages, however well intended, are invasions of a child’s right to privacy. You wouldn’t visit the home of a vulnerable Australian child as part of your holiday – why do it in Cambodia? Instead, when traveling in developing countries you can support social enterprises run by NGOs that give employment, training, and income to local people. There are lots of great souvenir shops, clothes shops, tour businesses, cafes and restaurants set up for this exact purpose!

Think before volunteering overseas. When traveling to a developing country to help build a house, for example, you might be taking the job of a local builder. It is, however, very helpful to use your relevant skills to train, up-skill, and empower local people. Then, instead of taking their jobs, you’ll be helping them to become more employable. You can also look into educational tourism experiences, which promote the concept of ‘learning before you help’ – like the Learning Service model suggests.

Think before donating to charities that institutionalize children and exploit them to get your sympathy. Instead support organisations that promote family-based care and empower the people they are working to help.

Think before sending donations of goods from places like Australia to developing countries. Instead, encourage goods to be bought locally to support the local economy.

My home country, Australia is a compassionate, educated and wealthy nation. If we engaged our hearts, minds, and means we could all play a significant role in creating an abundant and meaningful life for everyone.

The responsibility lies with each and every one of us, but it is also our responsibility to do the required research and become educated and informed givers to ensure the way we are helping is not inadvertently causing more harm than good.

Guest post by Tara Winkler – founder of Cambodian Children’s Trust